The Mdewkanton Santee (Dakota Sioux) Native Americans had long endured hardships on government reservations due to treaty violations and inadequate annuity payments. By 1862, over 150,000 whites had settled on Santee land, which now consisted of just a small plot on the south bank of the Minnesota River. This land no longer held adequate wild game or farming soil, which left the Natives to depend on government handouts. But the war slowed the handouts, leaving the Natives to face starvation.
Annuity payments due to the Santee totaling $71,000 did not arrive as scheduled, leaving many to speculate that the Federal government had spent them on the war. Dakota Chief Taovateduta (Little Crow) asked new Federal Indian Agent Thomas J. Galbraith to give them the food locked in the warehouse at the Upper Sioux Agency (the reservation’s distribution center), but Galbraith replied that he could not do so until he was paid. Galbraith also said that the annuity was being delayed because Congress could not decide whether to pay in gold or greenbacks. In the meantime, he assigned guards to the warehouse while the Natives grew hungrier.
In early August, hundreds of starving Natives surrounded the warehouse and held the guards at bay while they looted sacks of flour. The guard commander, Lieutenant Timothy Sheehan, finally persuaded Galbraith to issue some goods on credit pending the annuity payment. Little Crow refused to leave until Galbraith promised to provide for the Natives at the Lower Sioux Agency at Redwood, some 30 miles downriver. Galbraith agreed, and the Natives returned to their homes.
In mid-August, Galbraith and the traders at the Lower Agency met with Little Crow and the Mdewkanton Santee at Redwood. The goods that Galbraith had promised to the Natives at the Lower Agency had not come, and he made it clear that he was reneging on his pledge that they would. Little Crow stood and responded: “We have waited a long time. The money is ours, but we cannot get it. We have no food, but here are these stores, filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangement by which we can get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry they help themselves.”
Perceiving this as a threat, a trader named Andrew J. Myrick replied, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.” This enraged many of the Santees, and they walked out. Some began talking of waging war on the Federals since they were being weakened by the ongoing war against the South. Little Crow resisted because he had visited Washington and saw the power of the Federal government firsthand. The Santees began to perceive this resistance as weakness.
Two days later, four young Wahpeton Sioux men robbed eggs from a farm in Acton, then began shooting residents on a dare. They killed five white townspeople, including two women, before stealing some horses and riding off. Word quickly spread among the Native villages, and the leaders debated what should be done with the youths. Some urged turning them over to the U.S. government, but Little Crow said that “the whites would take a dreadful vengeance because women had been killed.” They finally concluded that the Federals would exact revenge whether the youths were turned over or not, and therefore they should preemptively attack.
Some elder Dakota had long sought a war of extermination against the growing number of white settlers in the area. Little Crow saw the futility of opposing the Federal government, but he agreed to join nonetheless. As Sioux Chief Big Eagle explained, “We understood that the South was getting the best of the fight, and it was said that the North would be whipped. It began to be whispered about that now would be a good time to go to war with the whites and get back the lands.”
The Sioux uprising began in earnest on August 18 when four tribes of the Eastern Santee Sioux (Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Sisseton, and Wahpeton) attacked the Upper and Lower agencies. Myrick was slaughtered with arrows and axes, and according to Big Eagle, “Now he was lying on the ground dead, with his mouth stuffed full of grass, and the Indians were saying tauntingly: ‘Myrick is eating grass himself…’”
The Sioux then ambushed a Federal recruiting party led by Henry Behnke, sending the troops fleeing back to New Ulm with horrifying tales of torture, rape, and murder. The Natives allegedly nailed young boys to doors and raped girls before dismembering them. As the Natives rampaged against white settlements in the area, the residents of New Ulm fled 100 miles northeast to St. Paul and Fort Snelling.
Meanwhile, Captain John S. Marsh led 46 soldiers of the 5th Minnesota and an interpreter from Fort Ridgely to try to broker a peace with the Sioux raiding the Lower Agency. The Natives ambushed the Federals at Redwood Ferry, about a mile below the agency.
The troops took cover and exchanged fire until the numbers overwhelmed them. Marsh ordered his men to swim across the Minnesota River to save themselves; he drowned in the effort. The Natives killed 24 of his men and wounded five others. Survivors fled back to Fort Ridgely, where the commander, along with Behnke, called on Governor Alexander Ramsey for reinforcements. This terrible conflict in Minnesota had just begun.
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